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Friday, 26 November 2010

Suu Kyi and Asean Need to Mend Fences

Monday, November 22, 2010

Since her release from house arrest on November 13, the opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has occupied new headlines worldwide with media interviews. She has mentioned almost everything she wants to do for her country and people in coming months and years, providing that the junta does not arrest her one more time.

However, one topic has escaped her: Asean. Amazingly, she has not mentioned at all the grouping even once in those interviews that refused to communicate with her some 15 years ago. Her letter to the Asean foreign ministers in July 1995 remained unanswered. Of course, it was a bad start on both sides. At the time, it was simply a contestation of recognition between her and the junta. She wanted to communicate directly with the Asean leaders barely two weeks after her first freedom. Burma was also about to sign the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Brunei paving the way for a full membership. Doubtless, Asean chose the side of junta.

At the time, she was overly enthusiastic about the role of Asean thinking unrealistically that it would be able to help and steer Burma in the right direction. Prior to the founding of Asean in 1967, Burma was approached to become a founding member of Asean by Thailand. Citing the principle of permanent neutrality, the then prime minister Ne Win refused to join the scheme arguing that the planned grouping was an imperial tool of the US. Exactly three decades later, Asean granted a membership to Burma in a hurry for fear of China's growing influence. On top of it, politics of admission served as a manifestation of the grouping's diplomatic independence against the Western harsh criticism on Burma.

Since then, Asean and Suu Kyi have transformed in their own ways reflecting the region's new dynamism and her own political maturity. After over a decade of admitting Burma and Laos, the grouping was confident enough to become a rules-based organisation that aspired to respect democracy and human rights. In the past two years, Burma has yet to display its willingness to compliance with the new Asean spirit of collective responsibility albeit the Asean-led humanitarian operation in the post Nargis.

So far, she has already met with some of the Western ambassadors. In the near future, arrangements must be made between her and the Asean ambassadors. The first known attempt, organised by Thailand, to do so in July 1995 in Rangoon was aborted due to Burma's strong protest. Poksak Nilubol, the Thai envoy to Burma at the time said that Asean lost the opportunity to bargain with Burma with the membership without any condition. He said Suu Kyi could be a moderating force.

Individually, Asean envoys can meet and sound her out. There is no provision under the Asean Charter that prohibits such a meeting. In this case, Thailand should not shy away for such an undertaking. On such matter, Cambodia has in fact pushed the envelope further by engaging with domestic players in a neighboring country. In April at the side line of an international meeting on democracy in Jakarta, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono met briefly informally with Anwar Ibrahim.

For Suu Kyi, as a prominent citizen of Asean and the only Nobel laureate, a senior stateswoman (only one too), her status and stake is even higher. All that is said and written in the Asean charter and all sacred documents of Asean would become futile and useless with the way the case of the Suu Kyi is being handled by Asean and its mechanism. It would certainly make a mockery of the Asean promises.

More than the Asean leaders would like to admit, she has a moral authority far beyond any of them. She is the best known Asean citizen living. She can challenge them to look at her case and handle it the way they have pledged their honor and commitment to do for "the People of Asean." There is no need to remind them that the Asean Charter begins with "We the People" like the American Declaration of Independence. During the drafting process of term of reference in 2007, this preference was approved quickly without dissension.

If she wishes, she can claim and capture that high moral ground by writing an open letter addressed either to current Asean chair Viet Nam through the end of this year or next chair, Indonesia, stating her principles and vision making a clean brake from the past. Unlike the restrictive situation in Asean back in 1995, currently more Asean citizens are living under democratic environment than ever before. Indonesia, which used to serve a model of the current Burmese military junta, has transformed itself into a vibrant democracy. The Philippines also has a new president that commits to democratic values. All Asean members have also pledged to make the grouping a people-oriented community.

That way, she would be able to communicate broadly to the Asean leaders and ordinary people.

Suu Kyi can indeed play a positive dual rule on behalf of Burma in Asean as well as for Asean in the global stage. She can improve the standing and image of both Burma and Asean. Judging from her statements since her release, she would certainly maintain rather active public life and is not going anywhere or stay idle. Her political future might some days follow the same path of other dissident leaders around the world who later took up leadership roles. In the Asean, many foes have turned friends after the collapse of Berlin Wall. Leaders of Laos, Viet Nam and Cambodia could easily recall their first meeting with their former enemies after joining Asean. Such leadership rapports might take years to establish. It would be wise for Suu Kyi and Asean to do it now.

Kavi Chongkittavorn is senior editor and a columnist at the Bangkok-based English-language daily newspaper, The Nation. This article appeared in The Nation on Monday.


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